Brendan Nelson is having the week off, meaning Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt will be able to prepare the Coalition’s response to Wednesday’s emissions trading scheme Green Paper undistracted by the sort of gymnastic display put on by their leader last week.

We should really have seen Friday’s final backflip coming. After spending the week at odds with his own leadership team and happily making the Coalition’s position on climate change the issue, the only way Nelson could’ve topped that was by somersaulting back to where he started from a week before. Which he promptly did. So now the official position is an ETS by no later than 2012, unconditional on anyone else doing anything. Despite Nelson’s own column in The Australian on Friday morning arguing quite the opposite.

That Turnbull-Hunt-Nelson phone call on Friday morning must’ve been a ripper.

This is inexplicable, ludicrous stuff, the most extraordinary effort from an Opposition Leader on a major issue for years. And the amazing part, the part that you have to keep repeating to yourself because it’s so absurd, is that it was all entirely self-inflicted. Labor didn’t do it. Malcolm Turnbull didn’t do it. Brendan Nelson did it. It was bad enough that Nelson wanted to retreat on climate change – but at least that’s totally defensible from a point of view of sheer political bloodymindedness, and because that’s where Nelson’s strength in the partyroom lies. But to not even have the courage to stick to that position makes him look weak. Not just politically weak, but intellectually weak.

Not a single one of Nelson’s colleagues will be less than deeply unhappy with his effort last week. Moderates will suspect Nelson’s a climate change denier or at least willing to play populist politics with the most important issue facing the planet. Conservatives will be unhappy that, having flirted with their more sceptical position, he abruptly and publicly retreated. Those who just want a competent leader will be shaking their heads in disbelief.

Nelson’s flirtation with a retreat on an ETS appears to have been orchestrated at least part by the climate change holdouts at Concept Economics. Concept is run by Henry Ergas and Brian Fisher, and senior Howard Government staffers Peter Conran and John Kunkel are also there. According to Lenore Taylor, Nelson met Warwick McKibbin, who is urging Australia go it alone with a special McKibbin trading model, with Conran and Kunkel last week. Fisher, previously the greenhouse mafia’s go-to bureaucrat when head of ABARE, last week attacked the Garnaut Report and said we should wait a decade for an international agreement on addressing climate said. Ergas has previously and again today argued a hardline “let the planet cook” approach that favours adaptation to climate change over mitigation.

With Nelson out of the equation for this week, Hunt and Turnbull can get on with putting a more moderate position on an ETS which is similar to the Government’s, but has sufficient points of difference to enable the Opposition to exploit issues such as petrol prices. And they will be able to shift attention back to where it should be – on the Government’s proposal. That might put some more pressure on Penny Wong, who so far has been a poor salesperson for emissions trading.

The best thing that Nelson can do from here on is stay on holiday. He has lost credibility on this issue and looks politically incompetent We’re back to days earlier this year when he was so amateurish he was damaging the Liberal brand. It’s time for Turnbull to step up.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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